ASTELL&KERN A&NORMA SR15
portable audio player
The brand that sells $5000+ players delivers the SR15 for $999. But how does it perform?
It looks like Astell&Kern is going affordable. Well, a little bit anyway. Rather than a portable media player priced at $5000+, this Astell&Kern SR15 is available in Australia for $999. Its full name is the ‘A&norma SR15’, presumably to contrast it more completely with the more expensive A&futura SE100.
The A&norma SR15 is a smallish (10cm long) high-resolution music player. It has 64GB of storage built in, and supports a single SD card of up to 400GB for additional storage. It has a 3.5mm stereo output for regular headphones, and a 4-pole 2.5mm output for balanced headphones.
Also built-in is Bluetooth, with support for the relatively high quality aptX HD codec (this is backwards-compatible with headphones which support only aptX) and Wi-Fi for things like firmware updates, and music downloads.
There’s an 84mm touch screen, placed on the front at a funky angle. This is about as sensitive and easy to use as a typical phone, apart from being rather smaller than the norm. On the right hand side is a rotary volume control. At the top there’s a power button. On the left are small buttons for skip forwards, skip backwards and play/pause.
The SR15 uses dual Cirrus Logic CS43198 DAC chips. It supports up to 24-bit/192kHz, PCM (and variants in various losslessly compressed formats) and DSD64 natively. It will also play 352.8 and 384kHz content, but scales them down to 176.4 and 192kHz. Likewise, it’ll handle DSD128, but converts this to 176.4kHz PCM for decoding.
Don’t like that? Its
Micro-B USB port — generally used for charging and transfer of music — also supports the On-The-Go standard, so you can plug in an external DAC.
Running things inside is a heavily customised version of Android. It’s locked down, so it doesn’t really look like Android; indeed, the usual soft keys at the bottom of the screen aren’t there.
I measured the weight of the unit at 160.5 grams with a microSD card installed. As seems to be common with this kind of player, there are plenty of sharp corners.
I did much of my listening with my pair of 20-year-old Sennheiser HD 535 open-back, over-ear headphones. I went for quite a few years not using these for a number of reasons, not least because they are quite fussy about the source. They need a source capable of delivering a firm, powerful bass, and indeed a fairly high level across the frequency spectrum, thanks in part to their quite low sensitivity.
I found listening to music using these headphones and the SR15 a delight. Their tendency to a lightweight sound was eliminated by the SR15. It took masterful control over them, and showed their audio reproduction in its best light, the sound becoming open, airy and clean, with a deep if slightly recessed bass. Even Eminem’s ‘The Slim Shady LP’ sounded balanced, with the driving bass fully compelling.
Importantly, regardless of what I played, the output level of the Astell & Kern SR15 was easily sufficient to drive them to thrillingly high levels, with a little in reserve in case I was tempted to go even higher. You are unlikely to find any main stream headphones, let alone earphones, these days which are of lower sensitivity than the HD 535s.
Results were less successful with a set of Sennheiser Momentum In-Ear earbuds. These $170 models are inclined towards a very bright treble, and the SR15 could do nothing about that. I’m not sure anything could.
So, onto my Oppo PM-3 planar headphones. They brought up the bass that had been recessed with the HD 535 headphones, while more or less retaining balance. I enjoyed the first Dire Straits album, held on the SR15 in DSD format. There was superb detail and an impressive driving quality.
I moved over to what used to be my favourite Beethoven piano sonata album: Vladimir Ashkenazy, playing the 8th, 14th and 23rd on Decca. I remained disappointed. This is a wonderful rendition through speakers, but has never been satisfying through headphones. (Even Sennheiser’s recent very expensive HD 820.) I tried again, futilely hoping something will make it sound good through headgear. It didn’t.
I even switched headphones again, this time to the Blue Lola, a set which look ungainly but sound quite impressive for their $450-ish price. Still poor. Not poor was Roxy Music’s debut self-titled album. (I know Bryan Ferry doesn’t like the mix, but I do.) There was first-class impact, excellent balance, and a gloriously layered sense of space.
Using the player was easy in general. It took me a moment to discover that when something’s playing you can tap on the cover art to bring up additional controls, such as repeat and random. And this also brings up an arrow so you can back out through the music access ‘tree’ the way that you came in.
Meanwhile, a swipe from the top gives access to the Android-y features, a swipe from the right opens the playlist, and a swipe from the left opens the main menu.
But most importantly, the skip and play/pause controls and rotating volume control all work when the display is asleep. No need to waste power on that so long as you’ve got stuff in your playlist.
I tried the in-line play/pause controls on headphone designed for iPhones and for Android phones, and neither worked. That’s a pity since they are so ubiquitous.
Finally, one weakness of so completely customising and locking down the Android system is that other music player software can’t be used. There’s nothing wrong with the one provided, but, say, as a keen podcast listener, I would have liked to be able to put a podcast app on this unit and make it my all-in-one everything player.
That said, Astell&Kern says that new firmware will be provided with the new A&ultima SP1000M (one up from the A&futura SE100 player) that permits the manual installation of apps in the form of Android APKs. Maybe that feature will trickle down into this model. (Maybe not.)
The Astell&Kern SR15 is a nifty little high definition portable player. It sounds great, is highly usable and has plenty of capacity if you buy a suitable card. Stephen Dawson